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The Artist Formerly Known as... Will

Interview with Bonnie "Prince" Billy


Published August 27, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy is one of the most enigmatic figures in the American music underground. Since the late '90s he has released three albums of delicate, fractured folk-pop that canvas life, love and death with a decidedly nontraditional twist. Brainchild of Palace leader Will Oldham, the Kentucky-born Bonnie Billy works sex, humor and the dark workings of the heart into his renegade folk. Master and Everyone, his latest release, is a serene, melodic collection of tunes that pit plucked acoustic guitars against Billy's gruff vocals and sensitive, backwoods poetics.

Currently hopping across the U.S. and Canada with Icelandic pop-queen Bjork, Billy is facing down decidedly larger audiences. Yet the man who has been covered by Johnny Cash, has PJ Harvey tracking him down for collaborations, refers to his relationship with his fans as "sort of like the relationship between Angelina Jolie and the parents of her Cambodian child," and demands he has never heard of Will Oldham is not afraid of making a living from stadium tours.

In advance of his Higher Ground show this week, Seven Days reached Billy on his cell phone in Los Angeles. While lurking around a swimming pool, Bonnie Billy reflected on his music, "royal" lineage, surfing and tequila.

SEVEN DAYS: How did Bonnie "Prince" Billy get involved in music?

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Well, I guess just from making records, playing music all around. Meeting people. I've been involved for about 12 years.

SD: What kind of music were early influences, and how has that changed over those 12 years?

BPB: Now I just go to a library, get records out. Usually just try to find records that I have never heard of before. Maybe from places I have never heard of before. And then you go to the library and look in different sections, take about 10 records home each week, listen to them and take them back and get another batch.

SD: Do you usually have a plan as to what you are looking for?

BPB: The plans sometimes come from, if there is something in the batch of 10 records that is really great. Then I'll try to go back and find more records that are similar to that.

SD: So, "Prince," when you become king, what kind of changes can we expect?

BPB: Um, when I become king... that's a good question. Well, I have a fear that I might be some kind of tyrannical ruler. Power corrupts.

SD: Will you still be open to the little man's views?

BPB: I think the deal will be that, as a ruler and as a king, I can go anywhere and do anything. So I would go everywhere and do everything and then, if something was bothering me, I would pick up the cell phone and have it changed right away.

SD: Are you excited to take over the throne?

BPB: I'm doing OK here. I don't have dreams of patricide or anything.

SD: No dreams of grandeur?

BPB: Oh, dreams of grandeur, for sure. Just no malevolent feelings towards those higher up. I know which side of my bread the butter's on.

SD: Are there any artists, either in music or other media, that you feel are really pushing the creative boundaries of their art form?

BPB: Hmm, that's a really good question... I think musically that Cat Power is [being more creative] than ever. I like Dave Eggers' books and the French guy that made the movie Irreversible and the one before, I Stand Alone. I would like to work with all of those people.

SD: What is your relationship with PJ Harvey?

BPB: I think it's a healthy one (laughs). Although, to be honest with you, I'll tell you this: I think that she is probably [in Los Angeles] right now, but I don't know where she is.

SD: If you could spend a weekend surfing and camping with three people, who would they be?

BPB: There's an old-timer surfer named Jerry Lopez, he would be good. I think Chan Marshall [from Cat Power] would be fun to do that trip with. And then, um, maybe my friend Daisy, who I'm staying with here.

SD: How did you get involved with surfing? What was the draw?

BPB: The draw was that I was living in Rhode Island and I didn't like living there, so I thought if I had to be there, what should I be doing in order to not... be unhappy. So I decided to get in the ocean even though it was wintertime in New England. I got a thick wetsuit and a used surfboard and went and got in the water every day.

SD: And you got addicted?

BPB: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess so.

SD: Is Bjork really a sprite?

BPB: Definitely not.

SD: She is a live human being?

BPB: She's certainly a live something.

SD: Oftentimes you get pigeonholed as a modern folk artist. How does that describe -- or fail to describe -- your music?

BPB: It probably helps describe, more than anything, my own musical and social limitations. I guess I just need to get out to the rave clubs more. I don't really like rave clubs... but I think I could probably handle taking Ecstasy once a month and meeting some dance programmers.

SD: Do you feel like the music you make now is due to your inexperience with some of those other facets of life, or is this what you would be creating no matter what your influences were?

BPB: No, no, I think stylistically it is definitely limited by my own limitations.

SD: Who really is Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and what is lacking in his life?

BPB: Well, I think I would like to increase, more than anything, probably on a personal level, honesty and openness, and on a musical level, facility with modern technology.

SD: Increased work in the studio?

BPB: Not in a studio, but in a recording situation, yes.

SD: If somebody was making a movie about the life of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who would play the key roles?

BPB: The key roles? Let's see. Well, I think we should get Benicio Del Toro to play Bonnie "Prince" Billy. And, might as well, let's see... we could get [Bernardo] Bertolucci to direct it.

SD: Who would do the music?

BPB: Not Danny Elfman. Maybe this guy Laiko Felix, because when I listen to his music I feel like it is a proper soundtrack.

SD: What's your favorite sexual position?

BPB: Probably 69.

SD: Who or what turns you on?

BPB: I think certain humidity levels, different kinds of weather conditions and kinds of motions and contacts and smells... that may or may not be associated with individuals.

SD: What is your favorite libation of the moment, or other crutch?

BPB: The last time I "oohed" over a libation was last night -- we were eating dinner at a restaurant that didn't sell any alcohol. So we went down to the alcohol store and were purchasing beer and when I looked behind the counter I saw this whole row of tequilas and my knees got weak for a moment.

SD: Why do you dislike doing interviews so much?

BPB: Because, for the most part, when you are just sort of rolling through activities and motions of a day or a week or a month and then you stop and have to, like, churn up everything, it forces potentially unpleasant circularity in thought. ...[Interviews] can be completely either frustrating and violating or totally illuminating. And there is no way to know until you pick up the phone. Actually, until you put down the phone.

SD: After all this, where do you see Bonnie "Prince" Billy in five years?

BPB: Oh, God! I hope Central America. On the coast. Being in the water all the time with five kids.

SD: And the princess?

BPB: Oh, she'll be down there somewhere.